Korea: A Curse Upon The Northern Army


March 10, 2020: The covid19 coronavirus that broke out in central China (mainly Wuhan city) during December 2019 has spread to Korea. South Korea promptly mobilized a national public health effort to deal with the crises. In North Korea, the government made all information relating to covid19 a state secret and denied that covid19 was a problem in North Korea. That has not worked and the only data collected about the disease was in the military. That data was secret but, because just about every family in the country has someone in the military, the data got leaked. By early March several thousand North Koreas soldiers appear to have been quarantined on suspicion of having the virus. These cases were almost all along the Chinese border. North Korea cannot afford to test many people for covid19. Instead, the army has been ordered to isolate any soldiers who exhibit symptoms of the virus. This probably puts some non-covid19 patients in quarantine with those who do have it. Nearly 200 soldiers have died recently of “fever” and families are being told the bodies were cremated.

The military is receiving more food in an effort to make sure soldiers are getting 800 gr (28 ounces) of food a day. Since late 2019 the troops have been getting less, or no, food from the government and told to rely on their own farms and livestock. Some units are better able to produce their own food than others and as a result of that new policy, a lot of troops went hungry during the coldest months of the year. There were also shortages of fuel for heating or electricity so the troops got hungry while cold and in the dark. There have been morale problems, thus the orders to keep news of troops with “fevers” secret. That may keep news away from most of the army because they are stationed along the DMZ. They get some news from South Korea, where there is a very public attitude towards covid19 information.

In South Korea, there have been 7,500 confirmed cases of the virus so far with 55 deaths. Compared to China and North Korea, South Korea has suffered a much lower death rate for people infected. In China, the death rate has been 3-4 percent while in South Korea it has been 0.7 percent. The Chinese death rate may be much lower because most of the deaths occurred in Wuhan city and many of the remainder in surrounding Hubei province. It is clear that China tried to suppress news of the covid19 deaths at first and never really corrected that when they finally admitted that there was a new epidemic disease. In other words, the government delayed actually testing for those who might have the virus. Most of those who are infected do not feel sick and, as with the annual influenza, often go unnoticed when it comes to collecting medical statistics. China based its death rate on the smaller number of people who had the virus and were very sick rather than all, or most of those with the virus. This is a common pattern with most epidemic diseases and also applies to covid19. Even taking that into account South Korea has a covid19 death rate at least half of China and that is largely attributable to a higher level of health care, especially when it comes to national health emergencies. South Korea with a population (51 million) twice as large as in the north has so far apparently suffered 80 percent fewer covid19 deaths.

By any measure, South Korea has an excellent health system. As a result, South Korea has been able to cope and has already contained the virus, with the number of new cases declining and fewer deaths per thousand infected people. Despite this superior performance, North Korea will not accept any South Korean help in this matter because the official word in the north is that the government kept the virus out. In most of the country that is true. But along the still porous Chinese border, it is no secret with the locals that covid19 got into their part of North Korea. People living near the Chinese border increasingly ignore government propaganda and take their own precautions to avoid the disease. While the military has a rudimentary health system for their personnel and some resources to deal with covid19 infections, modern health care is only available to the most senior officials both military and non-military. These officials also have access to the outside world and what is really going on with covid19 in other countries.

Yet there are also numerous reports of civilian deaths, amounting to over a hundred so far. Most of these deaths are near the Chinese border or in a few cities, including the capital, where travelers (North Korean or Chinese) are regularly found. Some of these travelers regularly crossed the border illegally. The government knows this but does not know who they are or even how many are still active. The Chinese health system is much more capable and there have been some (less than a hundred) cases of covid19 found in towns and cities along the North Korean border. Unlike North Korea, China can treat these patients and most recover. Covid19 has an incubation period of at 3-14 days before an infected person feels the symptoms. Most people with it never feel sick and their immune systems eventually eliminate the virus or most of it. In other words, there were plenty of opportunities for covid19 to spread into North Korea before the borders were closed at the end of January. While no covid19 deaths are reported in North Korea, the deaths do occur in the capital and along the Chinese border where such deaths are attributed to influenza or simply “fever”. In the capital and the military, it is possible to isolate people with “fever” but, in the rest of the country, there is improvisation because there are few hospitals and most have limited medical supplies. There are some private clinics for the donju (legal entrepreneurs) but even these cannot get new medical supplies because of the border shutdown. One thing all medical facilities have been ordered to do, until further notice, is to promptly cremate the bodies of all those who have died of this unspecified fever.

North Korea is going through the covid19 epidemic the old fashioned way and that is not all that shocking in the north, where people are perplexed by all the fuss. After all, the North Korean government took no precautions during SARS (2003) and MERS (2015) virus outbreaks. What is different about covid19 is that it spreads more easily and quickly, though not to the extent that it could be described as an “exterminating disease”. Only a few percent of those infected die and these are mainly the very young, very old or already very sick. In North Korea you have to add a fourth vulnerable group; the malnourished. Food shortages have been worse the past few years and a lot more people are simply not getting enough to eat. There are also more homeless children and adults in urban areas and they tend to be in poor health.

Some of these deaths may be from other causes but even North Korea medical personnel, at least outside the capital, do not have the diagnostic equipment to confirm covid19 deaths. North Korea is very poor and its public health system is largely non-existent in reality. Officially there is a national health-care system but the reality is that only the capital and the military have any significant medical resources. The only place where you see a lot of people wearing face masks is the capital where only key security personnel and the most elite officials (the one percenters) were issued masks. Other people improvise.

North Korea has suppressed any official, or unofficial, news of what is really happening. But North Koreans still have their cell phones, although they have to use carefully selected code words to pass on covid19 related news. Information brokers on the Chinese side of the border are still getting plenty of business even though much less information is getting out since the government began restricting movement within North Korea and across the border in January. On February 20 all schools (except for a few elite science programs) were shut down for a month. Long distance travel by train, plane, automobile or boat was restricted or banned.

The Border Battle

Fear of covid19 virus spreading from China to North Korea has caused some extraordinary efforts to prevent anyone from crossing the Chinese border, especially coming in from China. The one hardest hit by this are the people smugglers and illegal traders, especially those who arrange for money from North Koreans in China or South Korea to be transferred to families in North Korea. This has become a big business, moving as much as $20 million a year. In 2018 enterprising donju proposed a new scheme to obtain had currency and the government accepted. Donju noticed the government was willing to adopt a more pragmatic attitude towards “defectors” that have established themselves in China, South Korea and the West. The government has long known that defectors often sent money back to family still in North Korea. This was accomplished via a network of smugglers who moved all sorts of forbidden goods in and out of North Korea. In 2018 the government began allowing these remittances to get into North Korea legally, in return for a 20 percent fee. The government also allowed reunions of defectors with their North Korean kin, for a price (over $100,000). There are people who will pay and the North Koreans see this as an excellent source of foreign currency. Implementing this was possible because many donju ran the older system. Before this Chinese brokers would, for a 20 percent fee, arrange to have a Chinese or North Korean merchant inside North Korea pay the remittance. Even then, you are not safe. If any local communist officials find out you are getting money this way, you can be arrested or, if you are lucky, hit up for a bribe. Nevertheless these “remittance families” were known, or suspected and many donju got their start with money from remittance families, many of whom were donju themselves.

The North Korean and Chinese money brokers were usually involved in other forms of smuggling things into and out of North Korea, and the current crackdown on any illegal border traffic has been hard on these professional smugglers. It has gotten so serious that some North Korean border guards refuse to be bribed, something that is expected to pass along with the covid19 danger. Inside North Korea even donju with family ties to high ranking (in the government bureaucracy) families are subject to arrest and punishment for activities involving cross-border movement of any kind.

The border ban includes North Koreans arrested in China for being there illegally. It is also illegal to leave North Korea without permission and these prisoners are usually transferred back to North Korea for punishment. That has been halted until the covid19 danger has passed. The only legal crossings from North Korea are foreign diplomats being expelled on suspicion of having covid19. The military has banned leave for soldiers and restricted who can leave the base. New recruits are being turned down if they have any indications of sickness, especially lung related. Lacking the resources to test for covid19, military doctors are using cruder methods that see more conscripts having their induction delayed for months or longer. The military only takes in new recruits twice a year but one of those induction periods occurs in mid-January and lasts about a month. The military also discharges soldiers who have completed their enlistments (of up to ten years) at the same time. These discharges have been delayed as well, for a month or more. Same deal for officers retiring or completing their mandatory active service before going into the reserves.

North Korea also demanded that Chinese border guards ban civilians from even approaching the Yalu River that comprises most of the border. North Korea threatened to use violence to enforce this ban. China told North Korea to tone down the rhetoric before something unfortunate, for North Korea, happened.

Nationwide Quarantine

In early February North Korea halted all Chinese tourism, despite the fact that this is a major source of foreign currency and curbed normal (business and government) travel to China. North Korea is also very poor and in no condition to deal with an outbreak of the new virus. Yet North Korea still has a lot of smugglers operating along the Chinese border and in some coastal areas.

The border with China has been closed to major traffic since January 30th and that means bulk imports of food and fuel are not arriving. These are legal imports that China is the major supplier of. North Korea cannot afford to maintain much in the way of food or fuel reserves and what reserves do exist are for the military, in case there is a war or other national emergency. These supplies may already have been released to provincial security forces (soldiers and police) but they won’t last long if the Chinese border remains closed.

In contrast, by the end of February, the South Korean army has thousands of soldiers quarantined until they are cleared of any possible coronavirus infection. All these soldiers had visited China, Hong Kong or Macao recently and the quarantine was just a precaution often applied to any recent South Korean visitors to China.

March 2, 2020: On the east coast, North Korea held another live-fire exercise for two of its truck-mounted MLRS (multiple launch rocket system) weapons. One vehicle fired, for the third time since mid-2019 the new KN-25 600mm MLRS that fires a three ton GPS guided ballistic missile. The KN-25 was first seen in mid-2019. It has four missile storage/launch tubes and the test was apparently meant to have all four rockets fired in quick succession. The missiles that did launch landed about 240 kilometers off the east coast. The other MLRS carried and fired several of the twelve guided (by a GPS type system) 300mm rockets. This 300mm MLRS first appeared in a late 2015 parade. The North Korean 300mm rockets appeared to have a range of under a 100 kilometers. The launcher vehicle was later identified as a Chinese 6x6 truck meant for civilian or military use. China had come under increasing criticism for allowing its manufacturers to export such “dual-use” vehicles to North Korea when it is clear that North Korea wants them only for military purposes. More disturbing was the fact that the new North Korean guided rockets were using technology that could also have been Chinese, as the Chinese introduced such a large guided rocket system in 2010. The new North Korea guided rockets are all remarkably similar to recent Chinese models. Then again the 600mm guided rocket is also similar to the American ATACMS (Army Tactical Missile Systems) guided missile that entered service in 1991 and was obtained by South Korea in 1998. This is a 610mm rocket that fits in the same size container that normally holds six 227mm MLRS rockets.

The new North Korean test firings appeared to be more successful than those carried out in late 2019. The 300mm and 600mm MLRS systems have not yet entered service but are expected to do so soon. These long-range MLRS systems make it more difficult for South Korean forces to suppress long-range artillery and rocket units based on the DMZ. Most existing weapons are based in tunnels on the reverse slopes (facing north) near the DMZ. In wartime these launchers would be moved, some manually, into the open and fired. The MLRS vehicles are more mobile but they do depend on expensive Chinese vehicles that can be imported legally.

February 28, 2020: North Korea increased restrictions on travel inside the country. This was to limit the spread of covid19 and appears to be working for most of the country.

February 27, 2020: In North Korea, the government has told major many state-owned factories and other economic enterprises, as well as provincial governments, that the national government can no longer provide food aid and that these organizations have to make arrangements to fend for themselves. This new policy was necessary to ensure that the military, security services and key officials and their families could still get some food aid.

February 23, 2020: In North Korea, the government moved the covid19 risk level to “high” indicating that despite drastic measures to contain the spread of the virus, covid19 was still showing up. The government would not say where. What the government did say that people from areas near the China border, who were moved elsewhere in the country temporarily to work on one special project or another, would not be allowed to return home on schedule. Local authorities would have to make arrangements to feed and house their people in the meantime.

February 20, 2020: In North Korea, all schools were closed for a month as part of an effort to cope with the covid19 threat. This is worst for university students, especially those in the capital Pyongyang, who are from other parts of the country and living in dormitories.

February 19, 2020: South Korea will be donating one of its recently retired Pohang class corvettes to Colombia in South America. These ships were built in the 1980s and came in two variants. The first is an anti-ship version which has two Exocet anti-ship missiles, a 76mm gun, and a twin 30mm anti-aircraft gun. The second is an ASW version which has two 76mm guns, two triple 324mm (12.75 inch) torpedo tubes and two twin 40mm anti-aircraft guns. A retired Pohang was given to the Philippines in mid-2019.

February 16, 2020: In the northwest (North Pyongan Province), a man who died from what officials described as pneumonia. Others involved identified the man as a successful smuggler who often traveled to China and back legally and illegally. He was widely believed to have died of covid19. This would not be unusual because North Pyongan Province contains 12 percent of the national population and an even larger portion of GDP. It is the site of most trade with China, and most smuggling as well. Several days later the government basically put the provincial capital (Sinuiju) on lockdown with few people allowed to enter or leave the city. Sinuiju is on the Yalu River across from the Chinese city of Dandong. So far at least seven cases of covid19 have been identified in Dandong, the city though which passes over 60 percent of the legal trade between China and North Korea.

February 14, 2020: In North Korea, a new commander was appointed for the eastern sector (1st Army Corps) of the DMZ. This was considered big news because corruption in the 1st Corps has reached epic proportions. Supplies and equipment are “disappearing” and apparently sold on the black market. Several senior officers have already been found out, arrested and prosecuted for corruption. The DMZ units are the best equipped because they must be ready for war with South Korea. Corruption, in general, has increased throughout the army, and all government organizations. The military is the one major organization that has lots to steal and quickly sell. This includes fuel, food, vehicles and building supplies.




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